Book Review: “The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England” by Ian Mortimer

 I started reading “The Time Traveller’s Guide” while at my mothers, and – skipping the introduction, which I have now read – started reading the first page. I felt myself swallowed by the narrative, taken up quickly into seemingly effortless depictions of castles, gate houses, bishops’ palaces, merchants’ homes and hovels for those less fortunate.

The subtitle for The Time Traveller’s Guide is “A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century” which is as engaging as it is unique. I don’t think I’ve come across anything similar lately, but it is a lovely idea, taking us back into the thick of life as it might have been lived in the thirteenth century.

It quickly becomes clear that living in mid-medieval England was no picnic.  Dogged by legal and servitude rules as complex and barbaric as any modern-day “princes and dragons” computer game, life for the poor majority was short, beset with peculiar complexities – who knew that there were two systems of telling the time? There is solar time, and clock time, which is why we still say, “Seven o’clock” – and likely to be painful and harsh. But there were compensations: noise levels were low, there were no cars or tarmacadam, and music, humour and dancing were near universal.  

Mortimer writes with an extremely accessible, almost chatty style, his narrative festooned with details that are affectionately revealing and confiding in the reader. Where he finds all his data, and how he manages to mesh it fairly seamlessly into the portraits of the lives of his cast of thousands, is not, thankfully, my concern. And though there are times when the level of detail threatens to overwhelm, or, at least, to leave the impression that Mortimer is a tad too fond of showing off his detailed grasp of his subject, at the same time, that very level of detail speaks of intense engagement that brings the account alive with an almost real-time vividness.

It is quite an accomplishment to encapsulate in a single volume the very varied political and social scene of a very varied century. Which, in itself does modern readers the service of dispelling the myth that in medieval life, very little happened. In some ways Mortimer’s book only has time to skim the surface, but it does so in such an engaging way that it indeed manages to succeed as a visitor’s guide, albeit a very unusual one. If I’m ever posted to the thirteenth century, I shall be sure to take this book with me.

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